KORYO DYNASTY (A.D. 936-1392)

In A.D. 935, the Silla dynasty (57 A.D. — A.D. 935) was usurped by a religious leader from a merchant family named Wang Kon, who christened his empire Koryo, the source of the name Korea. Wang Kon forged his kingdom in part by marrying 29 women from influential families in provinces brought under his domain. Some of the women were used as "hostages" to prevent rebellions in rival provinces. Under these conditions Wang Kon unified Korea. Later he changed his name to Taejo.

As Silla declined, a new state, known to historians as Later Koguryo, emerged in the central peninsula. When Wang Kon, the founder of the new state, assumed the throne in 918, he shortened the dynastic name from Koguryo to Koryo. In 930 Koryo defeated the forces of Later Paekche (which also had emerged as Silla declined) and the remnants of Silla. The Koryo dynasty (918–1392), with its capital at Kaesong, forged a tradition of aristocratic continuity that lasted well beyond the Koryo dynasty into the modern era. The Koryo elite admired the civilization that emerged from the Song dynasty China (618–1279), and an active exchange of trade goods and artistic styles took place during this period. In the thirteenth century,Koryo was subjected to invasions by the Mongols. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005]

According to the “Columbia Encyclopedia”: In 935 the Silla dynasty, which had been in decline for a century, was overthrown by Wang Kon. During the Koryo period, literature was cultivated, and although Buddhism remained the state religion, Confucianism — introduced from China during the Silla years and adapted to Korean customs — controlled the pattern of government. A coup in 1170 led to a period of military rule. In 1231, Mongol forces invaded from China, initiating a war that was waged intermittently for some 30 years. Peace came when Koryo accepted Mongol suzerainty, and a long period of Koryo-Mongol alliance followed. In 1392, Yi Songgye, a general who favored the Ming dynasty (which had replaced the Mongols in China), seized the throne and established the Chosun dynasty.” [Source: “Columbia Encyclopedia”, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

The Koryo Dynasty elite fused aristocratic privilege and political power through marriage alliances and control of land and central political office, and made class position hereditary. This practice established a pattern for Korea in which landed gentry mingled with a Confucian- or Buddhist-educated stratum of scholar-officials; often scholars and landlords were one and the same person. In any case, landed wealth and bureaucratic position were powerfully fused. This fusion occurred at the center, where a strong bureaucracy influenced by Confucian statecraft emerged. Thereafter, this bureaucracy sought to dominate local power and thus militated against Japanese or European feudal pattern of parcelized sovereignty, castle domains, and military tradition. By the thirteenth century, two dominant government groupings had emerged: the civil officials and the military officials, known thereafter as yangban. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

History and Leaders of the Koryo Period

The founder of Koryo and his heirs consolidated control over the peninsula and strengthened its political and economic foundations by more closely following the bureaucratic and landgrant systems of Tang China. The rise of the Kitan Liao tribe in the north, however, threatened the new dynasty. The Liao invaded in 1010; Koryo was engulfed in devastating wars for a decade. After peace was restored, Koryo's inhabitants witnessed nearly a century of thriving commercial, intellectual, and artistic activities parallel to those taking place under the Song Dynasty (960-1279) in China. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

The Koryo leaders actively sought to imitate the Song's advanced culture and technology. In turn, the Song looked upon Koryo as a potential ally against the tribal invaders to whom it had been forced to abandon northern China in 1127. Stimulated by the rise of printing in Song China, Koryo also made great headway in printing and publication, leading to the invention of movable metal type in 1234, two centuries before the introduction of movable type in Europe.

During the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392), Korea remained independent until the kingdom was invaded by the Mongols in 1231. King Taejo (918-39) was a merchant and military leader who reunified the peninsula after the political fragmentation that followed the decline of the Silla Dynasty in the late ninth century. During the reign of King Munjong (1046-83), Korea's northern boundaries once again reached the Yalu and Tumen rivers. King Munjong established two military districts along the northern border and based army units there to defend the kingdom.

Following a military coup led by socially and economically disgruntled generals in 1170, Koryo kings (most notably those of the Ch'oe family) became virtual puppets of military leaders from 1196 to 1258. In 1259, at the end of several years of warfare with the Mongols, Koryo capitulated, becoming a vassal of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1279-1364) based in Dadu, which is modern Beijing. King Kongmin (1351-74), however, increasingly resisted Yuan-imposed institutions and sided with the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) against the Mongols. Yi Song-gye, one of Kongmin's commanders, rebelled against the effort of Kongmin's son to reverse Korea's pro-Ming orientation and in 1392 established the Chosun Dynasty.*

Koryo Monarchs: 1) Taejo 918–943; 2) Hyejong 943–945; 3) Jeongjong 945–949; 4) Gwangjong 949–975; 5) Gyeongjong 975–981; 6) Seongjong 981–997; 7) Mokjong 997–1009; 8) Hyeonjong 1009–1031; 9) Deokjong 1031–1034; 10) Jeongjong 1034–1046; 11) Munjong 1046–1083; 12) Sunjong 1083; 13) Seonjong 1083–1094; 14) Heonjong 1094–1095; 15) Sukjong 1095–1105; 16) Yejong 1105–1122; 17) Injong 1122–1146; 18) Uijong 1146–1170; 19) Myeongjong 1170–1197; 20) Sinjong 1197–1204; 21) Huijong 1204–1211; 22) Gangjong 1211–1213; 23) Gojong 1213–1259; 24) Wonjong 1259–1269; 25) Yeongjong1269; 26) Wonjong 1269–1274; 27) Chungnyeol 1274–1308; 28) Chungseon 1308–1313; 29) Chungsuk 1313–1330; 30) 1332–1339; 31) Chunghye 1330–1332; 32) 1339–1344; 33) Chungmok 1344–1348; 34) Chungjeong 1348–1351; 35) Gongmin 1351–1374; 36) U 1374–1388; 37) Chang 1388–1389; 38) Gongyang 1389–1392

Wang Kon (King Taejo)

Wang Kon (877-943), subsequently known as King Taejo (ruled 918-943), founded the Koryo dynasty (918-1392) by winning control over the peninsula after decades of battle and revolt that followed upon the dissolution of Unified Silla into regional powers at the end of the ninth century. Kaesong became the site of the main Koryo capital, and Wang Kon spent years trying to consolidate his authority.

Wang Gon was born in 877 to a powerful maritime merchant family based in Songak (modern Kaesong) as the eldest son of Wang Ryung. His ancestors belong to a noble Koguryo clan that became refugees and settled around Songak, becoming quite wealthy there through maritime trade and gaining control of the region, including the Ryesong River. During the Later Silla period, the northern areas of the Korean peninsula, including Songak, were the center of a Koguryo stronghold that began challenging the Silla Dynasty and Songak became the original capital of Later Koguryo in 901. [Source: Wikipedia]

Wang Kon's army fought ceaselessly with Later Paekche for the next decade, with Silla in retreat. After a crushing victory in 930 over Paekche forces at present-day Andong, South Korea, Koryo obtained a formal surrender from Silla and proceeded to conquer Later Paekche by 935 — amazingly, with troops led by former Paekche king Kynhwn, whose son had treacherously cast him aside. After this accomplishment, Wang Kon became a magnanimous unifier. Regarding himself as the proper successor to Koguryo, he embraced survivors of the Koguryo lineage who were fleeing the dying Parhae state, which had been conquered by Kitan warriors in 926. He then took a Silla princess as his wife and treated the Silla aristocracy with great generosity. Wang Kon established a regime embodying the remnants of the Later Three Kingdoms — what was left after the almost fifty years of struggle between the forces of Kynhwn and Gung Ye — and accomplished a true unification of the peninsula. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Wang Gon and the End of the Silla Dynasty

In the later years of Silla, many local leaders and bandits rebelled against the rule of Queen Jinseong (ruled 887–897), who was a relatively weak leader and failed to some up with policies to improve the conditions of ordinary people. Among those rebels, Gung Ye of the northwestern region and Gyeon Hwon of the southwest presented the greatest threat. They defeated and absorbed many of the other rebel groups as their troops engaged local Silla fiefdoms and bandits. In 895, Gung Ye staged a campaign in the far northwestern part of Silla, where Wang Gon’s family was living. The region, Songdo, quickly surrendered to Gung Ye. Wang Gon and his father Wang Yung (later Sejo of Koryo) — along with many local clans — were absorbed into the forces of Gung Ye, who would later pronounce himself king. [Source: Wikipedia]

Wang Gon's military skills were soon recognized by Gung Ye, who promoted him to general and embraced him as a brother. In 900, Wang Gon distinguished himself in a successful campaign against local clans and the army of Later Paekche in the Chungju area. In 903, he led a famous naval campaign against the southwestern coastline of Hubaekje (Keumsung, later Naju), while Gyeon Hwon was at war against the main Silla army. He led several more military campaigns, and helped people lived in poverty under Silla rule in the conquered regions. He gained public support as a strong, generous leader. In 913, he was appointed as prime minister of the Taebong — a newly named state in northern Korea — under king, Gung Ye, who quickly became unpopular when he began referring to himself as the Buddha and persecute people who opposed his views on religion. He executed many monks, then later his own wife and two sons.

In 918, four top-ranked generals of Taebong — Hong Yu, Bae Hyeongyeong, Shin Sung-gyeom and Bok Jigyeom — overthrew and killed Gung Ye near the capital, Cheorwon and installed Wang Gon as the new king. Wang Gon initially first opposed the coup but later agreed to their plan. Wang Gon renamed Taebong the kingdom Koryo, marking the beginning the Koryo Dynasty, and made his hometown, Gaegyeong, the capital. As leader, Wang Gon promulgated Buddhism as Koryo's national religion, changed his name to Taejo and laid claimed the northern parts of the Korean Peninsula and Manchuria — ancient Koguryo — as the king of a new Koguryo state. According to the Koryosa, in 918, the ancient capital of Pyongyang was in ruins and occupied by foreign barbarians were using the surrounding lands as hunting grounds and occasionally raided Koryo territories. During his first year as king, Wang Gon ordered his subjects to repopulate this area and decreed Pyongyang as the Western Capital. He also forged alliances with local clans rather than trying to conquer them.

In 927, Gyeon Hwon of Hubaekje captured the Silla capital of Gyeongju, executed its monarch King Gyeongae and established King Gyeongsun as his puppet monarch. He then ordered his army attack Koryo. Taejo (Wang Gon) tried to ambush Gyeon's troops as they returned with 5,000 cavalrymen but suffered a disastrous defeat and lost most of his army including his generals Kim Nak and Shin Sung-gyeom, the guys that made him a king. However, Koryo quickly recovered and defended against a Hubaekje attack. In 935, Silla had become so weak that the last Silla king, King Gyeongsun, felt there was no way to revive his kingdom and surrendered his entire land to Taejo. Taejo gave the former king the title of prince, and accepted his daughter as one of his wives (Wang had six queens, and many more wives as he married daughters of every single local leader).

After that Taejo was able to defeat Gyeon Hwon and his sons and allies. Gyeon Hwon was then ousted in a coup by his brothers and was sent into exile and imprisoned in Geumsansa, but escaped to Koryo and welcomed with open arms by Taejo. In 936, in his final campaign, Taejo defeated Singeom of the Later Paekche, occupied Hubaekje formally, and unified Korea. Taejo sought to make his his former enemies his allies by bringing them into his ruling coalition, giving titles and land them and their rulers and marrying their women. The unification was complete when Balhae — one of two successor nations of Koryo, which had been destroyed by the Khitans in 926 — joined Koryo. The Khitans Liao dynasty tried to make ammended for past wrongs by sending 30 envoys with 50 camels as a gift in 942, but Taejo exiled the envoys and starved the camels under a bridge despite suffering major diplomatic repercussions. In 943, Taejo died from disease.

Ten Injunctions of Wang Kon (King Taejo)

King Taejo’s ten injunctions were given towards the end of his life, in 943. They reveal the mixture of beliefs, assumptions, and religious foundations that he held to be the basis of his rule and legitimacy. [Source: Translated by Hahm Pyong.Choon, “Sourcebook of Korean Civilization,” edited by Peter H. Lee, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 263-266; Asia for Educators Columbia University, afe.easia.columbia.edu ^^^ ]

1) The success of every great undertaking of our state depends upon the favor and protection of Buddha. Therefore, the temples of both the Meditation and Doctrinal schools should be built and monks should be sent out to those temples to minister to Buddha. Later on, if villainous courtiers attain power and come to be influenced by the entreaties of bonzes, the temples of various schools will quarrel and struggle among themselves for gain. This ought to be prevented.

2) Temples and monasteries were newly opened and built upon the sites chosen by Monk Toson according to the principles of geomancy. He said: ‘If temples and monasteries are indiscriminately built at locations not chosen by me, the terrestrial force and energy will be sapped and damaged, hastening the decline of the dynasty.’ I am greatly concerned that the royal family, the aristocracy, and the courtiers all may build many temples and monasteries in the future in order to seek Buddha’s blessings. In the last days of Silla many temples were capriciously built. As a result, the terrestrial force and energy were wasted and diminished, causing its demise. Vigilantly guard against this.

3) In matters of royal succession, succession by the eldest legitimate royal issue should be the rule. But Yao of ancient China let Shun succeed him because his own son was unworthy. This was indeed putting the interests of the state ahead of one’s personal feelings. Therefore, if the eldest son is not worthy of the crown, let the second eldest succeed to the throne. If the second eldest, too, is unworthy, choose the brother the people consider the best qualified for the throne.

4) In the past we have always had a deep attachment for the ways of China and all of our institutions have been modeled upon those of T’ang. But our country occupies a different geographical location and our people’s character is different from that of the Chinese. Hence, there is no reason to strain ourselves unreasonably to copy the Chinese way. Khitan is a nation of savage beasts, and its language and customs are also different. Its dress and institutions should never be copied.

5) I have achieved the great task of founding the dynasty with the help of the elements of mountain and river of our country. The Western Capital, Pyongyang, has elements of water in its favor and is the source of the terrestrial force of our country. It is thus the veritable center of dynastic enterprises for ten thousand generations. Therefore, make a royal visit to the Western Capital four times a year — in the second, fifth, eighth, and eleventh months — and reside there a total of more than one hundred days. By this means secure peace and prosperity.

6) I deem the two festivals of Yondŭng and P’algwan of great spiritual value and importance. The first is to worship Buddha. The second is to worship the spirit of heaven, the spirits of the five sacred and other major mountains and rivers, and the dragon god. At some future time, villainous courtiers may propose the abandonment or modification of these festivals. No change should be allowed.

10) In preserving a household or state, one should always be on guard to avert mistakes. Read widely in the classics and history; take the past as a warning for the present. The Duke of Chou was a great sage, yet he sought to admonish his nephew, King Ch’eng, with Against Luxurious East (Wu.i). Post the contents of Against Luxurious Ease on the wall and reflect upon them when entering and leaving the room.

Korean Dramas Set in the Koryo Dynasty

“Empress Ki” (2014): Native Title: Ki Hwanghu; 51 Episodes; Network: MBC; Set in the 1300s. According to bibimgirl: There was a real empress in China known as Empress Qi who was from Koryo. She was married to Toghon Temür, the Khan of the Yuan Dynasty (Mongols). This drama sparked a huge controversy because there was no such king as Wang Yoo of Koryo. He was a completely fictional character because the real king of Koryo at that time, King Chunghye was a psychopath and is considered to be one of the worst kings in Korean history. With that being said, Empress Ki, the drama, was SOOOO good! I LOVED IT!! [Source: bibimgirl, February 3, 2016]

“Faith” (2012): Native Title: Shin Eui; 24 Episodes; Network: SBS; set in the 1300s. This is a fictional time travel love story between the real life historical Koryo warrior, Choi Young and a fictional female doctor from 2012. I personally thought the time travel thing would be way over the top and take away from the story, but it didn’t. Minus the time travel to 2012, the story takes place in 1351, when the 31st King of Koryo, King Gongmin begins his reign.

“Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo” (2016); Native Title: dal-ae yeon-in – bobo kyung shim ryeo; 20 Episodes; Network: SBS: Time Period: 941: Although there were a lot of new sageuks during 2015 and 2016, this was the best drama I have seen in the past couple of years! This drama is about a modern Korean woman who is transported back to the early part of Koryo dynasty during the reign of King Taejo, the founder of Koryo. She finds herself thrown in the middle of power struggle between King Taejo’s many sons. While other time travel dramas take place mostly in the modern era, about 90 percent of this drama takes place during Koryo. One of the central characters of the drama is Wang So, the 4th Prince and future King Gwangjong of Koryo. You can read more about King Gwangjong on this site.

Early Korean Kingdom Extended into Present-day Russia

In 2009, Zeenews.com reported: “Archaeologists have unearthed the largest “ondol” heating system, dating back to the 10th century from the Balhae Kingdom, in a nearly intact state in Russia’s Maritime Province, confirming the kingdom to have been a Korean settlement. Ondol, literally meaning “warm stone”, is an under-floor heating system where flues carry hot gases below the living space. [Source: Zeenews.com, September 15, 2009]

“They were a distinct feature of Korean dwellings and are not found in the remains of Chinese, Khitan or Jurchen homes. According to The Chosun Ilbo, the discovery proves not only that Balhae was a successor state to the ancient Korean kingdom of Koguryo, but also defeats the logic of China’s recent “Northeast Project”, which says Koguryo and Balhae were simply autonomous Chinese frontier districts.

“The Koguryo Research Foundation and Russia’s Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnology of the People of the Far East, which are conducting joint excavations at a site in the Russian town of Kraskino, announced on August 27 that they confirmed remains of ondol pipes 14.8 m in length presumed to be from the 10th century, toward the end of the Balhae period. The trace of the U-shaped ondol pipe which points toward the southwest, is 3.7 m wide to the west, 6.4 meters to the north and 4.7 meters to the east, and is 1-1.3 m wide. Professor Evgenia Gelman of Far-Eastern State Technical University, who unearthed the remains, said that the discovery clearly showed Balhae to have been a successor state to Koguryo.”

Mongol Invasions and Suzerainty Over Korea

A series of Mongol invasions that began in 1231, three years after Genghis Khan’s death, devastated Korea country in the 13th and 14th centuries. According to the “Columbia Encyclopedia”: In 1231, Mongol forces invaded from China, initiating a war that was waged intermittently for some 30 years. Peace came when Koryo accepted Mongol suzerainty, and a long period of Koryo-Mongol alliance followed.In 1392, Yi Songgye, a general who favored the Ming dynasty (which had replaced the Mongols in China), seized the throne and established the Chosun dynasty. [Source: “Columbia Encyclopedia”, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

By the twelfth century, Koryo was plagued by internal and external problems. Power struggles and avariciousness among the ruling classes led to revolts by their subjects. The situation was aggravated by the rise in the north of the Mongols, who launched a massive invasion under Kublai Khan in 1231. The Koryo armies put up fierce resistance but were no match for the highly organized mounted troops from the north, whose forces swept most of the Eurasian continent during this period. The Koryo army was decimated and the Koryo government fled retreat to Kanghwa Island (off modern-day Inchon). But after a more devastating invasion in 1254, in which countless people died and some 200,000 people were captured. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990, 1993]

The Koryo dynasty had withstood invasions by Manchurians and endured Mongol attacks for three decades, enduring attacks by mounted invaders who burned Buddhist monasteries and Koryo palaces. The Koreans wisely made peace with the Mongols in 1257. The Koryo king sent tributes of gold, silver, ginseng, fighting birds, skilled craftsmen and beautiful women to the Great Khan to avoid his wrath. The Koreans had been informed what happened to civilizations in Central Asia that rebelled against the Mongols instead of giving them tributes.

Korea was completely under Mongol domination. Koryo kings married Mongol princesses. Kublai Khan (reigned 1260-1294) ruled China and the eastern portion of the Mongol Empire, which included Korea, Mongolia and Siberia while relatives oversaw the three other main khanates — -in Russia, the Middle East and Central Asia. At the time he invaded Japan from Korea, Kulbai Khan controlled the main part of the largest empire the world has ever known. Kublai Khan attacked Japan as he was still engaged in mopping up operations against the remnant of China's Sung Dynasty.

Under the Mongol Empire, Korea was given a great deal of cultural freedom and this autonomy became more pronounced when the Mongol empire collapsed.

Mongols Attack Japan from Korea

The Mongol Empire under Khubilai Khan enlisted Koryo in its expeditions against Japan, mustering thousands of Korean men and ships for ill-fated invasions in 1274 and 1281. In each instance, seasonal typhoons shattered the Mongol-Koryo fleets, giving rise to the myth of kamikaze, or the "divine wind." [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

Kublai Khan used Korean ports as a staging area for his invasions of Japan. Koryo’s armies, using Korean ships, participated in the invasions of Japan. Kublai Khan attacked Japan because he needed resources and to show his power. Pamela Toler wrote: “For several years Kublai Khan was distracted by more immediate concerns: subduing the newly conquered province of Korea and his war against the Song dynasty of southern China. It was 1274 before the Mongol emperor turned his attention to Japan once more." +++

Japanese relations with China had been terminated in the mid-ninth century after the deterioration of late Tang China and the turning inward of the Heian court. Some commercial contacts were maintained with southern China in later centuries, but Japanese pirates made the open seas dangerous. At a time when the Shogunate had little interest in foreign affairs and ignored communications from China and Koryo (as Korea was then known), news arrived in 1268 of a new Mongol regime in Beijing. Its leader, Khubilai Khan, demanded that the Japanese pay tribute to the new Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) and threatened reprisals if they failed to do so. Unused to such threats, Kyoto raised the diplomatic counter of Japan's divine origin, rejected the Mongol demands, dismissed the Korean messengers, and started defensive preparations. [Source: Library of Congress]

First Mongol Invasion of Japan (1274): the Story

Pamela Toler wrote in Wonders & Marvels: On November 2, 1274 “a fleet of 900 ships sailed from Korea with over 40,000 men, including Chinese, Jurchen, and Korean soldiers and a corps of 5,000 Mongolian horsemen. The invasion forces landed first at the islands of Tsushima and Iki, where the local samurai were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of their attackers. [Source: Pamela Toler, Wonders & Marvels +++]

“With the intervening islands secured, the Mongols moved on to the Japanese mainland, landing at Hakata Bay on November 19. The Japanese were waiting for them, alerted by the news from Tsushima and Iki. When the Mongols landed, the twelve-year-old grandson of the Japanese commander-in-chief fired the shot that was the traditional opening in a samurai battle: a signaling arrow with a perforated wooden head that whistled as it flew to draw the attention of the gods to the deeds of bravery about to be performed. The Mongols responded with raucous laughter. +++

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “In 1274, Kubilai Khan finally resorted to force, sending from Korea an armada, which landed an invasion force numbering about 30,000 soldiers according to traditional accounts (some accounts put the figure as high as 90,000). Because each side greatly exaggerated the number of enemy soldiers in its own records (during and soon after the invasion period), one should be skeptical of such a large figure. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

Conlan has carefully examined both Mongol and Japanese military capabilities and concludes that each side consisted of perhaps 2,000 - 3,000 soldiers in 1274. Regarding overall military capabilities: “Surviving sources suggest that military parity existed between the Mongol invaders and the Japanese. Although the Mongols enjoyed naval superiority, they lacked sufficient forces to occupy northern Kyushu and accordingly avoided close confrontations with the Japanese defenders." [Source: “In Little Need of Divine Intervention," p. 265."~*]

“In any case, not long after the Mongols landed, they departed. The traditional account blames the departure on serious storms that arose suddenly, causing the Korean sailors manning the fleet to persuade the Mongols to leave or risk disaster. But the likely cause was not a storm per se, but a sudden reversal of the wind direction. Mongol commanders had come to know that their numbers were insufficient, and the change in wind direction facilitated their sailing back to the continent." (In Little Need of Divine Intervention, p. 267.)

Second Mongol Invasion of Japan in 1281

After the retreat, Kublai Khan prepared to attack Japan again. During the seven year interval between the battles the Mongols ordered the Koreans to build new ships and prepare a large army for the invasion. A Mongol ship from that period found by archeologists was 230 feet in length, twice as big as any European ship used at that time. In the meantime, Japanese built a massive three-meter-high, 20-kilometer-long wall around Hakata Bay in six months, recruited samurai from around the archipelago and trained local fishermen and traders to be fighters. Kublai Khan sent envoys, asking the Japanese to submit but again they refused and executed the khan's ambassadors.

In one of the greatest naval assaults ever Kublai Khan attacked Japan in 1281 with 4,400 ships and tens of thousands of Korean, Chinese and Mongol troops. In contrast, the famed Spanish Armada that attempted to invade Elizabethan England contained only 130 ships and 27,500 men and the D-Day invasion force that stormed the beaches of Normandy included about 8,000 ships and 175,000 soldiers.

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “It was not until 1281 that the second invasion force set sail for Japan. This force was much larger, about 140,000 in traditional accounts. More realistically, however, says Conlan: "It remains doubtful that even as many as ten thousand invaders attacked a reinforced Japanese contingent of several thousand men in 1281." (In Little Need of Divine Intervention, p. 264.) Although the second invasion force was much larger than the first, Japanese defenses and coordination were also much better." [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

The Mongols sent two fleets: a large Chinese one with 3,500 ships and 100,000 troops, and a smaller Korean-Mongol one with 900 ships and 10,000 troops. The two fleets were supposed to rendevous at Iki island but that didn't happen. Pamela Toler wrote in Wonders & Marvels: “The Mongols launched a two-pronged attack against Japan, with a combined fleet of almost 4,000 ships and 140,000 men. The Eastern Army sailed from Korea on May 22; the Southern Army sailed from southern China on July 5. The two fleets were to meet at Iki and proceed together against mainland Japan. The Eastern Army subdued Tsushima and Iki in early June. Instead of waiting for the Southern Army to arrive, they moved on to Hakata Bay. [Source: Pamela Toler, Wonders & Marvels +++]

Fighting During the Second Invasion by the Mongols

The Mongols apparently had no knowledge of the massive wall built by the Japanese. The Korean-Mongol force landed directly in front of it, with the Japanese there waiting for them. Fighting in cramped quarters along a narrow coastline robbed the Mongols of their most successful tactic — the lightning cavalry charge that had routed the finest armies of Asia and Eastern Europe — and forced them back on to their ships. The Japanese counterattacked the Mongol ships. Samurai warriors lept onto the decks of the enemy ships and fought with the crews. Burning ships were sent into masses of enemy warships. The Korean-Mongol force retreated to Iki Island.

Thomas Hoover wrote in “Zen Culture”: “As expected, in the early summer of 1281 the Khan launched an invasion force thought to have numbered well over 100,000 men, using vessels constructed by Korean labor. When they began landing in southern Kyushu, the samurai were there and ready, delighted at the prospect of putting to use on a common adversary the military skills they had evolved over the decades through slaughtering one another. They harassed the Mongol fleet from small vessels, while on shore they faced the invaders man for man, never allowing their line to break. For seven weeks they stood firm, and then it was August, the typhoon month. One evening, the skies darkened ominously in the south and the winds began to rise, but before the fleet could withdraw the typhoon struck. In two days the armada of Kublai Khan was obliterated, leaving hapless onshore advance parties to be cut to ribbons by the samurai. Thus did the Zen warriors defeat one of the largest naval expeditions in world history, and in commemoration the grateful emperor named the typhoon the Divine Wind, Kamikaze. [Source : “Zen Culture” by Thomas Hoover, Random House, 1977]

“The fighting went on for about two months, with Japanese defenses holding but no major battle having been fought. The lack of a major battle should not suggest a lack of savagery. For example: “The defenders’ desire for vengeance had been inflamed by the brutal occupation of the outlying islands. The Mongols murdered most men and cruelly pierced the center of the palms of captured women and tied them to the sides of the ships. . . Suenaga [a Japanese warrior] and his cohorts coolly killed most sailors and soldiers captured on the high seas." (In Little Need of Divine Intervention, p. 270.) Then, quite suddenly, a typhoon came through the area and destroyed much of the Mongol fleet. The typhoon ended the invasion, and the battered, greatly reduced remnants of the Mongol force sailed back to Korea." ~

Kaesong: Koryo Capital and UNESCO World Heritage Site

Kaesong — in southern North Korea, just north of the DMZ and the South Korean border — was the capital of the Koryo Dynasty. Today it is a modern city with 200,000 people known for it archeological monuments. Among the sights are the burial mounds of a Koryo king and queen from the 14th century, a clapper bridge built in 1216, some traditional tile-roof houses and the Pyoching Stele. Outside of town is Songgyungwan Confucian College. Established in 992 and rebuilt in the 17th century, it is now a museum with a variety of artifacts. Kaesong is a former South Korean city. It was overrun in the opening minutes of the Korean War. When the DMZ was defined it was on the North Korean side.

The Historic Monuments and Sites in Kaesong were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013. According to UNESCO: “Situated in Kaesong city, in the south of the country, the site consists of 12 separate components, which together testify to the history and culture of the Koryo Dynasty from the 10th to 14th centuries. The geomantic layout of the former capital city of Kaesong, its palaces, institutions and tomb complex, defensive walls and gates embody the political, cultural, philosophical and spiritual values of a crucial era in the region’s history. The monuments inscribed also include an astronomical and meteorological observatory, two schools (including one dedicated to educating national officials) and commemorative steles. The site testifies to the transition from Buddhism to neo-Confucianism in East Asia and to the assimilation of the cultural spiritual and political values of the states that existed prior to Korea’s unification under the Koryo Dynasty. The integration of Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist and geomantic concepts is manifest in the planning of the site and the architecture of its monuments. [Source: UNESCO]

Within the mountain-ringed basin of Kaesong City and extending into the foothills to the west, the Historic Monuments and Sites in Kaesong comprise an ensemble representing the ruling base of the Koryo dynasty (918-1392) with its associated tombs. The ensemble embodies the political, cultural, philosophical and spiritual values of the capital of the unified Koryo state as it transitioned from Buddhist to Confucian philosophy, through the geomantic layout of the city, palace and tomb complexes, the urban defence system of walls and gates, and educational institutions.

The Historic Monuments and Sites in Kaesong are important because: 1) they exhibit the assimilation of the cultural, spiritual and political values of the various states that existed on the Peninsula prior to the Koryo, and the interchange of such values with other neighbouring kingdoms over five centuries; and 2) they are exceptional testimony to the unified Koryo civilisation as Buddhism gave way to neo-Confucianism in East Asia.

Places in Kaesong

According to UNESCO: The serial property consists of twelve separate property components, five of which are separate sections of the Kaesong City Walls forming parts of the triple-walled Koryo defence system. This included the innermost Palocham Wall of 896, within which the palace was later built; the Outer Wall built 1009-1029 to surround the city, connecting the mountains that protect it according to geomancy (Mt Songak, Mt Puhung, Tokam Peak, Mt Ryongsu and Mt Jine); and the Inner Wall of 1391-3.

“The other seven components are the Manwoldae Palace archaeological site and remains of the Kaesong Chomsongdae (an astronomical and meteorological observatory); the Kaesong Namdae Gate (the main southern city gate in the Inner Wall); Koryo Songgyungwan (a former high state education institute which educated Koryo national officials); Sungyang Sowon (a Confucian private school on the site of the former residence of Jong Mong Ju, 1337-1392, a Koryo minister whose assassination marked the overthrow of the Koryo); Sonjuk Bridge (where Jong Mong Ju was assassinated) and Phyochung Monuments (two stelae commemorating Jong Mong Ju); the Mausoleum of King Wang Kon with associated Seven Tombs Cluster and Myongrung Tombs Cluster; and the Mausoleum of King Kongmin.

“The authenticity of the individual nominated property components is retained in terms of form, design, materials, spirit and feeling, location and the overall geomantic setting of surrounding mountains. The excavated remains of Manwoldae Palace express credibly and truthfully its value in demonstrating the Buddhist foundation and geomantic beliefs of the Koryo dynasty and the property component is of sufficient size to include areas yet to be excavated which may contribute further to the understanding of the palace and observatory. Its natural environment has remained intact. The geomantic setting of the property is contained within the buffer zone, which encloses all the property components and covers the basin in which Kaesong City is sited including areas of traditional architecture, and the hilly areas to the west where the royal tombs are located. It includes the geomantic markers around the city: Mt Songak to the north, Mt Jine to the west, Mt Puhung and Tokam Peak to the east and Mt Ryongsu to the south. Strict management of the buffer zone will ensure that these elements that constitute the existence of this site and unite the property components as a reflection of the Koryo dynasty continue to dominate.

On tours of Kaesong, visitors eat “Panssanggi” style as the royal families once used to, now a traditional style of cuisine found in both North and South Korea. They visit Sonjuk Bridge, where Jong Mong Ju was murdered to overthrow the Koryo dynasty. At the Koryo History Museum, learn more about this fascinating and powerful dynasty. On the way back, they visit the mausoleums of King Wanggon and Kongmin, two of the 12 components of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

End of Mongol Rule over Korea

Only in the early fourteenth century, when the Mongol Empire began to disintegrate and the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) — founded by a former Chinese peasant — pushed the Mongols back to the north, did Koryo regain its independence. In 1359 and 1361, however, Koryo suffered invasions by a large number of Chinese rebel armies, known as the Red Banner Bandits, who sacked and burned the capital at Kaesong, just north of the mouth of the Han River. The country was left in ruins. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

The Mongols continued to hold domains in Koryo even after their defeat by China’s Ming dynasty (1368–1644), and the Koryo court divided into pro-Mongol and pro-Ming factions. In 1392, Yi Songgye, a general who favored the Ming dynasty (which had replaced the Mongols in China), seized the throne and established the Chosun dynasty.

The last period of Mongol influence was marked by the appearance of a strong bureaucratic stratum of scholar-officials, or literati (sadaebu in Korean). Many of them lived in exile outside the capital, and they used their superior knowledge of the Confucian classics to condemn the excesses of the ruling families, who were backed by Mongol power. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

The overthrow of the Mongols by the founders of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in China gave a rising group of military men, steeled in battle against coastal pirates from Japan, the opportunity to contest for power. When the Ming claimed suzerainty over former Mongol domains in Korea, the Koryo court was divided between pro-Mongol and pro-Ming forces. Two generals marshaled their forces for an assault on Ming armies on the Liaodong Peninsula. One of the generals, Yi Song-gye, was pro-Ming.

As the Mongols retreated to the north and the Ming established a garrison in the northeastern part of the Korean Peninsula, the Koryo court was torn between pro-Ming and pro-Mongol factions. General Yi Song-gye, who had been sent to attack the Ming forces in the Liaodong region of Manchuria, revolted at the Yalu and turned his army against his own capital, seizing it with ease. Yi took the throne in 1392, founding Korea's most enduring dynasty. The new state was named Chosun, the same name used by the first Korean kingdom fifteen centuries earlier, although the later entity usually has been called simply the Chosun Dynasty or the Yi Dynasty. The capital of Chosun was at Seoul.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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